A man known as the “Picnic Table Guy” around Deception Pass State Park has won the 2021 Washington State Parks Volunteer of the Year Award for his time and dedication to campsite and trail clean-ups and, of course, skill in picnic tables.
Jason Armstrong, the area manager for Deception Pass State Park, nominated Rory Wallgren, a frequent volunteer at Deception Pass since 2018. The award covers all 124 state parks in Washington.
Wallgren earned his nickname because he has been instrumental in the picnic table project. Deception Pass sells memorial plaques for picnic tables to help with the costs of running the park. The tables are typically made of trees, some are hundreds of years old, which had come down in the park.
Wallgren volunteered to build many of the rustic outdoor tables. The process consists of chopping the fallen trees into logs, cutting them into planks, putting the planks together to build a table, then sanding and staining the wood. The final product is a table that will last the park for many years and is much more beautiful than a regular picnic table.
Along with all of that, Wallgren does anything else that needs to be done in the park.
“If I needed shelving put up, if I needed a freezer moved, if I needed literally anything, all I would have to do is say ‘Rory, would you have time sometime to do this’ and it would be done within 24 hours. It was just amazing,” said Carol Bromel, a board member of the Deception Pass Park Foundation.
Bromel also just so happened to be the winner of last year’s Washington State Parks Volunteer of the Year Award.
“He is there religiously, rain or shine,” Bromel said. “He has done single-handedly trail-widening projects where he’s just stuck at it for weeks to get an entire area of the park where the trails have gotten narrow because of the growth of the plants.”
Before dedicating so much time to volunteering, Wallgren was in the tire business for about 40 years. He owned the Wallgren Tire Center at a few different locations, including Bellingham and Lynden. He sold the store in Lynden in 2018 and moved back to Oak Harbor, his hometown, to be closer to his parents. That was when he began volunteering at Deception Pass.
He is there at least one full day a week, working with the maintenance department and the foundation.
“I just love doing it,” he said.
Wallgren is quick to point out that he isn’t the only one building picnic tables.
“There’s four other guys in the maintenance department and all of us are working on all that stuff,” he said.
That includes deconstructing and rebuilding picnic tables, clearing the park’s 40-mile trail system of brush and debris, painting dumpster fences and helping build things at the gift shop. He describes the list of tasks as “never-ending.”
Wallgren was surprised to receive the award as recognition is not what motivates him to volunteer.
“It definitely means a lot,” he said.
Wallgren thinks of every campsite or trail as some family’s favorite spot that they work and look forward to all year to come visit. He wants to keep that beloved campsite or trail beautiful.
“That’s the award, I think– or the reward,” he said. “Seeing the people happy.”
Now the “Picnic Table Guy” has a picnic table dedicated to him. It stands outside the park’s administrative offices and commemorates his status as Volunteer of the Year.
Wallgren is a humble man and he emphasized that it takes a whole team of people to maintain a park.
“The park can get so messed up so easy in a storm and a week later, it’s all cleaned up again,” he said. “You don’t realize how much work it takes all these people and all the helpers and all the volunteers everywhere in any park, really.”
He plans to keep volunteering at Deception Pass and encourages other people to volunteer as well, or help out in any way they can.
“Anybody can help out at a park,” he said.
It can be as small as picking up sticks to get them off a trail while you’re hiking. You can view ways to volunteer at deceptionpassfoundation.org/volunteer-opportunities.
Deception Pass State Park is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a community picnic on July 23. With the help of volunteers like Wallgren, it will last for 100 more.